Change that leads to better lives

Guest Blog

We are pleased to introduce a guest blog about attitudes to ageing by Dorothy Runnicles who is an NDTi Associate & a well known campaigner for older people's rights.

Dorothy r

Dorothy is an older person advisor, researcher and advocate. She has particular interest in age discrimination and dementia. She is a user of the Health and Social Care Services. Click here to read more.

Exploring the last lap: living and dying; could we do better?

There is still a gap between people’s understanding of the experience and diversity of ageing.

Whilst blogs are meant to keep things light, I take this subject to be deadly serious and my absorbing passion is to express its complexity whilst I am still able to do so. However, there are bonuses to living longer. I have recently been to a funeral to celebrate the life of a friend: a friendship that lasted more than half a century. It’s a remarkable privilege and asset to share with others the many twists and turns, and the ups and downs, and the varying stages of lives as I perceive them.

As I grow older the repeat prescription list gets longer. You are constantly adjusting to new losses; taste and smell, going slower, hearing and sight loss, swallowing becomes more difficult. I witness the expansion of ‘The Big Business of Old Age’ as financial interests become more important than service provision - Whose interests are serving or constraining progress? Are we paying too much for the privilege of living longer?

Lack of change over time
I have been helped to trace the 1947 publication from the Nuffield foundation, entitled ‘Old People: Report of a Survey Committee on the Problems of Ageing and the Care of Old People’, (under the Chairmanship of) B. Seebohm Rowntree.

Its aims were to gather as much information as possible with regard to the various problems individual, social and medical associated with ageism and old age. It identifies the work being done by voluntary organisations, the support that exists for the care and comfort for older people in Britain at that time. Many issues remain the same despite huge policy changes.

In my view there has never been a golden age for older people in Britain. We need to warn the next generation that progress seems to be abating. What and who has benefited from the good work undertaken in the recent decade? Whist awareness may have risen amongst a relative few, we have evidence of a long standing ‘ageism’ which holds back progress, in my view. Some recent 21st century efforts include:

  • The International Year of Older People 2012-2013, which united efforts in recognition of the need for progress in Europe.
  • The 5 year ‘Better Lives for Older People’ programme sponsored by JRF, covering 37 publications of various sorts.
  • The 10 year Government programme: ‘Better Government for Older People’, which the DWP officers have worked hard to sustain.

The persistence of ageism and patronage are, in my view, holding back progress. It is depressing to read years of research and enquiry sometimes leading to short term gains. Tackling ageism and the radical changes include changes in the culture of organisations.

The need for this change has been well documented by Dr Alex Comfort (1977): “The concept of ageism is part of the prejudice against the elderly”. He states that “ageism is the notion that people cease to be people; cease to be the same people, or become people of a distinct and inferior kind, by virtue of having lived a specified number of years… like racism, that it resembles, it is based on fear, folklore and the hang-ups of a few unlovable people who propagate these. Like racism, it needs to be met by information, contradiction and, when necessary, confrontation”. What methods do we have for recognising, confronting and tackling behaviour that has become accepted as normal?

Everyone can question their own practice and:

1. Recognise the continued contribution that older people have made throughout history to their family’s survival and to voluntary and neighbourhood services – it is not a one way street

2. Examine the history of previous efforts. For example, JRF first surveyed older people’s needs in 1947. How have outcomes changed? The need for a stronger voice for older people in society has been well documented including the Anthea Tinker study (1981). It has not just recently been discovered!

Some further points of interest:

  • How do we improve the quality of life and recognise the tensions by means of good, professional practice? This debate started after the report by Peter Townsend, “The Last Refuge” (1964), as is illustrated by David Plank in his report of a study of various means of caring for dependent elderly people (1977)
  • In 1978 Dr Mark Abrams conducted a survey of older people, reporting that, for those aged 75 and over, the greatest emphasis in life satisfaction is on primary social relationships – family, friends and neighbours.
  • Nell McFadden in her presentation on That Bit of Help asked; “What is that little bit of help?” (Annual conference, Oct 2010, UK age research forum). There are many good support services but they not are geared through the eyes of an older person. If you really want to get it right for older people ask older people themselves, (JRF, Older Peoples Inquiry, 2005-2006).

We are now paying some attention as to how more personal effort on our parts will trigger changes in our lives, in our streets, in our neighbourhoods, in our care homes. We can all help to do something new using our personal skills, networks and talents to sustain better life experiences for older people.

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